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AEC guidelines “pointless administrative burden” for Charities

A change in political expenditure could weaken the link between public expression of views and an actual election

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) have introduced a new clause on political expenditure that will result in “needless” red tape and extra costs to Charities.

The AEC’s ‘Financial Disclosure Guide for Third Parties Incurring Political Expenditure’ failed to reword an obscure legislation that will result in over 1,000 Charities being required to register as third parties in an election.

In September 2017 a phrase in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was changed from “the public expression of views on an issue in an election by any means” to “the public expression of views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors in an election (whether or not a writ has been issued for the election) by any means.”

Spokesperson for St Vincent de Paul Society National Council, Frank Brassil, said: “This new clause in the Commonwealth Electoral Act is completely unworkable.

“It is vague, tendentious and open to a wide range of interpretations. It may seriously limit the ability of apolitical organisations such as St Vincent de Paul Society to properly speak on behalf of the most vulnerable in our community.”

A recent submission from the National Council said the definition did not provide clarification and that the “convoluted phrase” substantially broadened the range of publically expressed views whose financial costs will be deemed reportable in an annual return relating to political expenditure.

“One of the consequences appears to be that the number of community organisations, including Charities, who will have to submit an annual Third Party Return of Political Expenditure will be greatly expanded,” the submission read.

“This is because the new wording includes not only issues that are before electors in an election, but also issues that are likely to be before electors. It also weakens the link between the public expression of views and an actual election.”

The changes to the definition and phrase could mean that any public comment on a public issue could be deemed political in the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

The AEC’s report – which came into effect on March 15 – details that in the absence of an election being called, an assessment is required to “ascertain the subjective purposes behind a specific public expression of the relevant issue” which involves an analysis of how topical the social issue is and the stance of each political party.

“The nearer in time the public expression to the possible date for holding an election, the more likely that the views will meet the subjective intention of placing an issue before electors in an election,” the report read.

In an explanatory memorandum attached to the new legislation, the change to the phrase was justified as it clarifies “that to give rise to a need for return, the public expression of views must relate to an upcoming election rather than a past election.”

The National Council’s submission said this change will be at odds with aspects of Charity law and the objects of the ACNC act, with Brassil adding: “It will be a nightmare for the AEC to administer and it will produce pointless administrative burden.”

The submission outlined that consequences were not well thought through and that it will “result in difficulties in differentiating real third parties in an election from organisations who are making comments on public policy as part of their mission.”

The submission also mentioned that it may have a “chilling” effect on public expression of social, economic and environmental concerns by charities – which may undermine the integrity of the democratic political system.

“It is not appropriate for a subjective clause to be in the Electoral Act,” Brassil said.

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